Monday, December 22, 2014

The Annual Christmas Letter 2014

Justin, Karyn, Jeff, Kate, Anna, Tyler

Merry Christmas 2014!

Every year at Christmas we have a theme at our church that we use for the various celebrations during the month of December, and this year’s is "Hometown Holiday." We’ve lived in Newberg for seven years now, and in some ways it feels so short and in other ways soooo long! But I felt on my heart this year to focus on our really love, pray for, and appreciate Newberg. There’s something to be said about "going home for Christmas." We long for it and the thought of it is so appealing. But often once we get there, we experience the complexities of family dynamics and even dysfunction. We revert back to birth order personality traits and face old irritations and idiosyncracies of our relatives. Yet still, we yearn to go home. Well, I am home, and I wanted to really appreciate being here, despite the irritations and idiosyncracies of small-town living. Mary and Joseph were the first ever to go home for Christmas, although they didn’t know it at the time! Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown, and he and Mary traveled there and actually stayed there awhile...long enough to settle in with various family members and give birth to Jesus. And there it is—the reason we have this inexplicable sense of longing for a hometown holiday. Jesus is there. We literally have the great privilege of bringing Jesus into the midst of our holiday...into the midst of our family dynamics...into the midst of who we are and where we came from! That’s my prayer for my family, as my children come home this year after being scattered abroad for months, and that’s my prayer for you. Let us bring Jesus into our home and into our families, no matter what dynamics we may face. He is there for you, and He is there for those you love!

As a mother, I’m especially excited about my hometown holiday because, as I mentioned, my kids are coming home! Anna returned from five months in India in February and then took off again in May for seven months in Edmonton. Justin was hot on her heels, leaving for Calgary just a month and a half later. Anna worked for her grandpa helping with data entry of the church books and also served as an intern on Christcity’s children’s ministry team, which she loved. She returns home ready to run our own children’s ministry and go back to Portland Bible College in January. Justin is working full-time at First Assembly, a large church in Calgary, in the audio/visual department doing graphic design and exciting projects. He is there for at least another six months but is coming home on Boxing Day/the day after Christmas, so we will celebrate our holiday a joyful day late! Tyler is working full-time and attending Portland Community College taking business classes and is the only one left at home. Because of his busy schedule, we don’t see a lot of him. I try to have coffee with him in the morning and Jeff tries to stay up late when he comes home so we can connect. The only time I really feel like a mom anymore is when Tyler asks for his white shirt to be washed or if I can make some coffee for him before he runs out the door or if I’ll bake/make him something yummy. And I am soooo happy to do it! That’s what happens when there’s only one chick in the nest! Kate is in her sophomore year at Portland Bible College and working part-time. She comes home on Sundays and Wednesday nights and every once in awhile gets a Saturday off and hangs out with me for the weekend!

Jeff and I have had a busy year full of exciting ministry and lots of change. In February we traveled to Cuba to minister with Phil and Judy Jaquith and had a fabulous time. Though the people there have their entire lives rationed, their spirits are free! The church in Cuba is alive and vibrant, and it was a blessing to see the wonderful work the people of God have done there, despite the limitations Communism has placed upon them. The country is beautiful and the people are precious! We ministered in March and April at other churches in neighboring cities and then in May we said goodbye to the very last of our Canadian PBC students who have shared their weekends with us for the past seven years. What a big gap to fill! We will so miss that season of our life and ministry, but we always anticipate the new thing God is going to do! After a fun time hanging out and touring beautiful Oregon with our PBC students’ families, who are also our good friends, we had the last family photo with all of us intact. We finished pictures, ate our last lunch together, and then Anna and I jumped in the car and took off for Canada to move her in with Grandpa after Grandma was placed in long-term care. Jeff’s mom had suffered three separate hip breaks, two of which required surgery. She now has advanced Alzheimer’s, so rehab after surgery was extremely limited if not impossible. I spent a week there to visit her in the hospital and give my sister-in-law a bit of a break, as she bears the bulk of Mum’s medical care. It was a beautiful time together...days that I will always cherish. What I came away with after my time with my mother-in-law is this: "My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my life" (Ps. 73:26). Despite her inability to carry on meaningful conversation or remember things or care for herself, her spirit is alive! She speaks of the Lord, shows concern for others, loves to sing hymns and worship songs, and prays with fervor. What a legacy!  I returned home and then just a month later we were all back in Edmonton again for our niece’s wedding. It goes without saying that it is so wonderful to be a clan again! We spent time with both family and friends and ministered at two different churches and had three restful days at the lake with Jeff’s sisters and an assortment of nieces and nephews.

August was the month of great change. After 14 years, I quit my medical transcription job and began working at the church. When Jeff first asked me to do this, my response was, "I like you being my husband, and I’m fine with you being my pastor, but I’m just not sure how I’ll like you being my boss!" But working at the church has been a good experience. It is so great to focus my time and energy on the get to projects that have been on my list for a long time, to spend more time with the ladies, to organize some areas of ministry that needed refreshing and to start some new ministries. It’s also incredibly awesome to be free to go on mission trips (hopefully Haiti this March) and conferences and ministry trips without having to use vacation time to do so and then to spend my vacation time transcribing in coffee shops with free WiFi while everyone else is playing!

So it’s been a year of change for our family on so many levels, but of course on thing remains...Christ, our center and our rock. In talking about "little Bethlehem," Joseph’s hometown, Micah 5:2-5 says (my paraphrase), "Out of you, Little Bethlehem, shall come forth a Ruler at the time that she who is in labor gives birth. And the remnant of the brethren shall return home. And He shall feed his flock and they shall abide, for He shall be great and this One shall be peace."

Peace to you this Christmas! Whether you go to your hometown or your family members come home to you, remember that He is with you. If you bring Christ into Christmas, He will bring His peace into your home!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ode to November

November is the forgotten month...the dreary month when the leaves fall off and blow away, the wind is sharp, the days darken, and everything holds it breath, waiting for Christmas.

At least that's what I used to think.

All the way back to when I was a little girl, I'd refer to November in my mind as "the brown month."  The bare, twiggy branches and dead, brown grass seemed to beg for a blanket of snow to hide under.  For kids, October is a lot more fun...leaf piles, corn mazes, pumpkin carving, playing outside with friends after school, and only a sweater needed to ward off the chill.  December is really great, of course, because of Christmas and snow and bright lights and music.  But that brown in-between month seemed so dull.  Most kids don't get excited about Thanksgiving; it's just the nod to begin the real festivities.  With that being the one and only highlight in the midst of shortened days, wind-whipped weather, hard ground, fields full of stubble, and dead flowers in the garden, it just wasn't enough to redeem the month in my mind.

After a particularly difficult event one November in my early adult years, my first thought was, "Of course this would happen in November.  November is the bad month."  But no sooner had I thought the thought that I felt an immediate prick in my heart.  There is no bad month.  Every month of the year is good and has its merit and worth.  I decided then and there that I wasn't going to let a difficult situation "seal the deal" on committing poor November to my bad books for the rest of my life.  From now on, I would no longer hate November.

Funny thing is, I didn't have to change my thinking with a purposeful know, waking up in the dark, stepping outside into a biting wind, looking woefully up at the naked trees and then suddenly lecturing myself, "No, those aren't naked trees, those are trees waiting for their new leaves.  No, it's not cold and dark, it's just a bit chilly and gray.  I simply began seeing differently, and it was actually effortless.  I remember looking at the bare branches one day and seeing them in their stark beauty...the symmetry and sudden asymmetry of their black silhouette against the gray sky, the lichen that grew like lace, the intriguing pattern of the bark.  I also was awakened to the beauty of the muted, mellow palette of a November afternoon.  With the sun setting early, it gave a soft, pink hue to the sky that blended beautifully with the taupes and grays and browns of the trees and fields below it.  It became one of my favorite color much so that I actually chose it as our backdrop for family pictures one year.  We all dressed in various muted shades of browns, taupes and pinks and then hiked out to the bare woods where the rosy light of the afternoon sun had no trouble shining through the leafless trees.  We walked paths that were carpeted with brown leaves after their vivid colors had been faded by the wind and rain.  There was a soft etching of frost that highlighted each branch and made the woods shimmer.  They were beautiful pictures.

And now, I actually love November.  Every year it just got little bit better.  I don't think it was because I tried to like it, I think it's just because I decided to stop hating it.

I took a picture of the valley in which I live from a hill above our home.  Every time I look at it, I'm filled with a sense of peace and calm.  It's November and the late afternoon sky is pink and pale blue.  The fields are brown.  The tree branches are bare.  The riot of color that makes up early Autumn has played itself out.  The sky actually seems bigger without leaves to hide it.  A warm jacket, a hat and gloves are comfy and cozy against the crisp air that nips my nose.  I like it.  It makes me glad to go back to my warm kitchen for dinner...something that has been simmering or roasting for hours and fills the house with its delicious aroma.  And, unlike how I felt as a kid, I love that November culminates with Thanksgiving.  I love to cook amazing dishes and gather those I love best around my big table.  I love that decorating is easy...things foraged from the woods and lots of candles.  I love that the preparation is minimal but the enjoyment is big and the expense is small.  I love how it is a perfect reflection of the month that hosts it...muted and mellow.

So happy sweet November!  Enjoy the month and give thanks!  God makes all things beautiful in its time.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why Me?

The news these days makes us uncomfortable, doesn't it?  Sometimes I feel like not reading the paper, watching the news or even going on Facebook so I don't have to hear and see the atrocities and depressing stories playing themselves out before the world, thanks to technology.

When we go through a difficult time or a trying circumstance, it consumes us.  All we can focus on is what we are presently feeling and facing.  We ask the famous pity-party question, "Why me?" when we don't understand how or why what we're dealing with could possibly have happened to us.  But in light of what others in this world are struggling with, I think, "Why not me?" is a better question.

We are the minority...those of us who live in a house with walls, floor and roof and have electricity to heat and cool it, cook our meals and store our goods, access to clean water in abundance to flush and spill and let run at will, a police force that actually protects us, a government that doesn't throw us in jail for what we believe, a neighborhood to walk in undisturbed and unafraid, stores with shelves that are stocked with so much food that half of it we've probably never even tried, pets that receive more regular meals than many children, hospitals with state-of-the-art equipment and medicine that rarely, if ever, runs out, entertainment abounding in an array of games, sports, movies and parties, outdoor pursuits such as hiking, fishing, climbing, hunting and pretty walks, education and the opportunity to have more if we want, labor laws that keep us safe, comfortable and paid for the job we do, music at the press of a button, swipe of a finger or click of a dial, clean teeth and hair cuts, not to mention pedicures and manicures and massages, and then there are toys...big toys, and jewelry and ten pairs of shoes and a closet full of clothes we haven't worn for years, libraries, theaters, gyms and parks, coffee shops on every corner and restaurants for every taste (but don't get me started on food again because then I start thinking of all the food that ends up in the garbage, scraped off our plates, tossed off the grocery store shelves and disposed of in dumpsters behind hotels, stores and restaurants), and the sheer luxury of privacy...the ability to go into a bathroom or bedroom and shut the door to dress, bathe and use the toilet alone.

Do you know that at least 80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day?  Yes, 80%.  Every time you go out for lunch or buy a latte for you and a friend or pick up a cute blouse on sale or go to a movie, you have spent someone's entire wage for the day.  And you didn't even blink.  No sacrifice at all.

I've stood at the site of a mass grave and looked out over scores of white tombstones after a genocide.  I entered the very building where thousands of people gathered because they were told it was the safest place, and then were betrayed and delivered into the hands of the enemy.  I've walked the same hills where villagers once ran, fleeing the men with guns below, only to die of hunger, thirst and heat exhaustion in the rugged terrain.  I've visited families living in huts and hovels with chickens and animals roaming freely through their "home."  I've looked in a bag of rice and found it crawling with cockroaches and knew that it was about to be cooked for the next meal.  I've sat in the living room of former refugees and listened to the story of how they received relief packets dropped from American planes.  I've seen people bathe, brush their teeth and relieve themselves in the village square, the only place with water.  I've slept on a mat on a concrete floor beside people I barely knew.  I "showered" under a trickle of cold water or a bucket and a pail.  I've dressed behind a towel and held that towel for others so we could change clothes outdoors in mixed company.  I've shared meals with people who gave me their very best....crackers and mayonnaise...because that's all they had under the oppressive government who controlled their rations.  I've watched a horse collapse in the street, driven literally to death because there was no other transportation.  I've been followed by gypsy children who threw rocks at me when I had nothing to give them, and I've seen those same desperate children shooed away like a dirty street dog by others better off than they.  I've seen people living in bombed out homes because there was no place else to go and no money to rebuild.  I've helped in medical clinics where the only treatment we could give was antibiotics, vitamins and prayer.  I've walked through slums so dangerous we had to have hired police with us at all times.  I've been the first white person to step foot in a remote village filled with grass huts so tiny you had to stoop to enter.  I've seen garbage clogging waterways, filling streets, and tumbling down mountainsides...and crowds of people picking through it.  And I've stepped over beggars and bums sleeping on the streets and walked on my way.  And after these experiences, I caught a plane and flew back to the comforts of home and hearth.

And then there are the "nevers."  I've never had to flee for my life.  I've never had my home destroyed.  I've never left a wound or ailment untreated.  I've never been imprisoned, raped, beaten, or held at gunpoint.  I've never scavenged for food.  I've never drunk contaminated water or been parched because there was none.  I've never been persecuted for my faith.  I've never been afraid for my life or the lives of my loved ones.  I've never witnessed a violent and deliberate murder against an innocent person.  I've never seen a masked mob descend upon my city to riot and pillage it.  I've never hidden from bad guys or bombs.  And I've never had to pray to God to spare me from such things either.

So the next time you want to ask, "Why me?" think about that question a little differently.  Why not me?  When 80% of the world is suffering in ways we can only imagine, who are we to complain because we got a speeding ticket for driving too fast in our nice car on a highway that is repaired, marked and actually goes from point A to point B without being blown up or washed out.  When you crawl into bed at night with your cozy duvet, favorite pillow and a decent box spring and mattress, don't worry about the next day.  Instead be thankful you're not wrapped in a blanket sleeping on the ground of a hut or a tent or under the stars.  When you look in the fridge and see "nothing" to eat or your closet and see "nothing" to wear, remember that your ugliest, oldest outfit might be the nicest clothes someone else could ever own and your "famine" would be another person's feast.

I'm certainly not trying to guilt-trip anyone.  I'm just reminding myself...and asking myself, "Why me?"  Why am I in the 20% minority?  Why did God allow me to live free and full and fearless?  Certainly not to complain about how bad life is or all the things I'm lacking.  I have to believe that I am in the 20% because God knew He could count on me to help the 80% with my finances, my time, my activism, and my prayers.

Sometimes it's hard to know what to do.  It's so much bigger than we are.  But there is always something.  The first thing we can do is stop asking, "Why me?" when it comes to suffering and instead state boldly, "Why not me?" to be the one to step up and step out in faith and in action.  Pray for someone today.  Go somewhere where there is need.  Give out something you have to another.  Give up something you want so that you have money to help another.  Teach your kids to be mindful and be thankful.  Remind yourself of the same.

"Why me, Lord?"  "Why have you given me so much in my life?"

Why not me?  Why not you?  Why not us?  Why can't the 80% reach out to the 20% and seek to close the gap?  Help us, Lord, to love your people like you do, that we may be Your hand extended.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Memory Lane

"Mum, you are the best mother-in-law," I said to the tiny, frail woman curled forward in the wheelchair beside me. I held her gnarled hands in mine and thanked her for raising a great son and being such a good grandma. I complimented her on her cooking and acknowledged her years of loving service to her family. I leaned over and kissed her bony forehead beneath thin, wispy hair. I prayed out loud for her, and she fervently prayed with me...amen-ing my words emphatically. Then I looked into her pale blue eyes sunken deep in their sockets, and told her I loved her and said goodbye. She was tired. She wasn’t sad to see me go. She waved, and as soon as I was out of view I was forgotten. But that’s okay...with dementia it’s each moment that counts, and we had just shared a week of special ones.

I spent this last week at the hospital with my mother-in-law, who has advanced dementia, severe osteoporosis, and is recovering from a broken hip, congestive heart failure and pneumonia. She lives in Canada, 1000 miles away from us. Her care falls largely to my husband’s sister and father, and that care has greatly intensified in the last six months.

There was a day when many members of the family lived near her, and we helped share the load of driving to doctor’s appointments, going out to the mall, hair appointments, and companionship. But over the years we’ve all dispersed, and only one daughter and two granddaughters remain in the city. So with this third broken hip, my husband and I thought it would be a help if I went to Edmonton and gave my sister-in-law and father-in-law a bit of a break.

Dad is a man true to his convictions, and it is very difficult to get him to even consider—let alone change—his opinion on a matter. He was determined that Mum would stay at home and he would care for her, "for better or worse, in sickness and in health." He defended his stance through her episodes of confusion, times of wandering, moments of paranoia, frequent falls, repetitive conversations, countless messes, sleepless nights, total dependence and altered schedule. Last December she got up in the night to use the bathroom and fell in the dark. When my father-in-law found her, she was on the floor, soiled and in pain. He helped her up, cleaned her up, and put her back to bed. But the pain continued to bother her over the next few days, so off to the hospital she went for x-rays. It was a hip fracture, but not a serious one. There was no need for surgery, just rehab. And then the news was delivered: She was considered a high-risk patient because of her dementia and tendency to fall, and the doctors said it was time for an assisted-living facility. Dad resisted, clinging to his commitment. But when presented with the safety issues that his wife faced, he knew that the wisest choice that served her best interests would be to move her to a center that could provide care and protection in her fragile state.

A month or so later she had moved into the facility the family had most hoped she would get. She had a spacious room containing a bed and familiar items from home...her favorite chair, family photos, a dresser, and other homey touches that would bring comfort and beauty. Her room also had a private bathroom. This proved to be not such a great feature. Three weeks ago she got up in the night to use her private bathroom and again fell, this time badly breaking her hip. She was unable to walk and surgery was necessary. She had also developed pneumonia.

Surgery was a huge risk to her in her fragile state...sick with pneumonia, weighing probably only 80 pounds, and with very brittle bones. But the doctor said it was worth the risk, because without surgery she would be bed-bound for the rest of her life. Because of her Alzheimer’s, she would have no idea why she was in bed and would not be able to comprehend or remember that she had broken her hip, so she would spend every day and night attempting to get out of that bed.

So surgery was performed, and she began a long wait in the hospital moving back to her old room? At this point, no one had answers. Rehab facilities refused her because she had dementia. She was unable to work progressively towards goals of rehabilitation as she could not remember that she had broken her hip. Repeatedly she was told, and repeatedly she responded in shock, "I did? How did I do that?" When presented with a walker, she wouldn’t hold on to it. When strapped in a wheelchair, she tried getting out. When placed in bed with the sides up, she attempted to swing her feet out the lower end. She was constantly on the go but going nowhere.

At home in Oregon, I imagined how her days were unfolding...lying in a hospital bed staring up at the ceiling, unable to read or even watch TV because of her short attention span and loss of memory. She would languish there until a visitor came. I wanted to help provide a diversion to her unending days and bring her a bit of cheer and reprieve. So I packed my bags, and my daughter Anna and I headed north.

When I arrived at her hospital room, she was lying motionless in bed. So tiny, like a child, only bent and misshapen. She was asleep, with her teeth bulging out because her jaw was slack. Her skin was pale and translucent. "She looks dead," was my morbid thought at the shock of her appearance. She had always been small, and over the last few years quite thin, but now there was no flesh left. "Skin and bones" was not just an exaggerated comparison, it was truth.

"Hi, Mum," I said softly. Her eyelids fluttered and she sucked her teeth in. "Sorry to wake you," I apologized.

Instantly, she brightened. "No, didn’t wake me. I was just outside in the garden." She struggled to sit up, so I pressed the button on her bed and raised her slowly.

"It’s Karyn and Anna," I said brightly. "We’ve come from Oregon to see you."

"Yes," she said, equally as brightly, "It’s so good to see you!"

I couldn’t tell if she really knew it was me or if she was just responding to her visitors as she always had...with true pleasure at having company. But it didn’t matter. She was ready to visit! We talked about everything. And when I could think of nothing more to say, I started at the beginning and talked about everything all over again!

"Look outside, Mum. The trees are blossoming. Aren’t they beautiful?"

"Oh, I know. Ralph and I were just out this morning walking in the trees."

"I’m so glad we get to spend a little time together!"

"Yes, it’s so nice to come here and see all you guys."

"What have you been reading, Mum? I see you’ve got the newspaper on your tray."

"Oh, I was just know..."

"Yes, I know. It’s good to read and keep up on what’s going on." "Did you know I brought some fresh strawberries from Oregon? I am going to make a strawberry-rhubarb crisp this week."

"That will be nice. I’ve been doing a lot of baking lately too."

"I’m sure you have. You’ve always got yummy treats for us to eat!"

"Well, I’d best be getting the dishes done now."

"It’s okay, Mum. It’s our turn to wait on you."

And so our conversation went. We talked about the past and the present and events that only took place in her imagination and mixed them all up until they formed this nice rhythm of "visiting." The more we talked, the more lively she looked. How she loves people! They bring such life and energy to her!

Each day I returned, and we settled in to a little routine. I planned my visits around mealtimes, so I could assist her. They said she wasn’t eating very well and also that she did funny things to her food, like sprinkle sugar on her pancakes and spread butter on her meat and pour fruit juice on her potatoes. She ate with her fingers. I realized the tray of food was nothing more than a jumble of very confusing items to her...each dish had a lid, the silverware was wrapped, the salt, pepper, sugar and butter came in little was too much to process. I took her tray away and set it behind her on the window ledge. Then I took just the dinner plate and a fork and set it before her. She picked up the fork and began to eat...more than half a plateful before she was full! Then I took the plate away and gave her the little bowl of fruit and a spoon. Done! Then I stirred a little sugar in her tea and swapped out fruit bowl and spoon for cup, and she contentedly sipped tea while we visited. Success! The only problem with mealtimes after that was that she kept offering to "fix a bite" of something for everyone else in the room or share what was on her plate. She never let anyone go hungry at her house!

Activities were a lot of fun too. One day it was Bingo. Everyone was handed a card as they took their spots around the table. To my surprise, the very first number that was called, Mum quickly found...on the card belonging to the man next to her! We all laughed, and he graciously handed over his card to her so she could finish playing.

Another day it was Hymn Sing. We were just about to enter the activity room when the first chords were struck on the piano. Instantly Mum’s hand was up in the air, swinging back and forth in time. She was ready to go. We opened our hymn books and she dutifully tried to follow the words on the page. Suddenly, the melody stirred a memory and her brain shifted from recent to remote (or maybe from flesh to spirit!). She looked up from the page and began singing from her heart. The words and the melody were there! She sang perfectly along with everyone else, her eyes shining, her fingers tapping, and my throat tightening! How to worship has nothing to do with memory. Though our flesh may fail, God is our strength and our portion forever!

What I enjoyed most about hanging out with Mum was watching her obvious delight in the constant activity that took place in her hospital room. She was in a room of four, and each patient there had had hip surgery. The turnover rate is quick...they arrive post-op and have about three to four days of stabilization before being transferred out to a rehab facility to continue their recovery. The patients require a lot of assistance, so there is always at least two nurses present when it is time to move someone, and they bring a lot of gear with them. Out of respect for the privacy of Mum’s neighbors, I would turn my back and face Mum when the nurses were caring for one of them. But not her. No, she looked on with great interest, offering a running commentary or advice as they attached lifting devices, raised up wobbling patients on weak legs, put people to bed, started IV’s, helped them walk to the potty, and took their blood pressure. At one point when a team of three was busy preparing to move one woman from wheelchair to bed, Mum leans over to me and says (quite loudly), "Looks like they’re harnessing up a horse!" I snickered, and so did those who had overheard. Then, once the harness was on securely, the machine lifted the woman out of her chair to a standing position and Mum called out gleefully, "Hi-dee-ho, and away we go!" Everyone roared.

One thing that Alzheimer’s does is remove filters. Etiquette and tact often go out the window as patients simply say what they think or feel. The woman next to Mum had very short hair that was cut in a boyish style, and Mum didn’t like it a bit. She kept telling me, "Her hair is too short." Then a cute young nurse walked in and was busy caring for the woman, with Mum watching her every move. When the nurse was done she left the room and Mum called over to her roommate, "You are a lucky man to have such a nice lady like that!" She had fixated on the short boyish hair until, in her mind, her woman roommate had morphed into a man!

On my last day there, I wanted to do something for the family. It was Sunday, and Sundays in the Wells’ household for decades have meant a big Sunday dinner after church with family, friends, and even strangers gathered round the table to share a meal. Although Mum served a varied menu over the years, roast beef was probably everyone’s favorite and the meal that best defined, "Family Dinner," to those who remembered it. I also thought it would be nice for Dad to have the family gathered around his table, since over the years of Mum’s mental and physical decline, we girls had taken over the role of hosting meals and holidays. Today would once again be Sunday Dinner at Mom and Dad Wells’.

While I was excited to prepare and host this meal for everyone, I was totally unprepared for how it would affect me. I put the roast on timed bake before leaving for church, so when Anna and I arrived home that afternoon and opened the front door, the aroma of rich, roasted beef greeted us...and sent us back in time on a wave of nostalgia. "Ohhhh," we both exclaimed.. "It smells just like Grandma’s!" Wow. We were the kitchen 15 years ago, Mum busy at the stove calling out, "Come in, come in!" as her five children filed in family by family, with spouses and grandchildren in tow. The girls headed for the kitchen to help with last-minute preparations while the guys headed downstairs to watch whatever game was on, and the kids ran around like little crazies, playing with their cousins. Then Mum would call down, "Supper’s on!" and the men would emerge from the dungeon with an extra chair each to place around the double-leafed table. Dad was always last, having to squeeze behind half the seated family to reach his spot at the head of the table. Much bickering and bantering would be taking place as the kids were settled and everyone was up and down for a moment to grab the juice or the missed napkins. Dad would rest his head in his hands, waiting until he felt there was a respectable silence, and then he would pray. Inevitably, someone would do something funny during the prayer and those who saw or heard it would choke back laughter, so that by the time Dad said, "Amen," there was a burst of hysterics, and Dad would look up at everyone, shake his head, and mutter, "Cut that out and pass the potatoes."

Enjoying the memories but with work to do, Anna and I busied ourselves in the kitchen, trying to find where Grandma may have put the gravy boat or the china the last time she used it. Many things were missing, but no one seemed to mind eating off the mismatched plates someone scrounged up in the depths of the old china cabinet. We counted bodies and then called the guys up to put in not one leaf but two to expand the dining room table, and then they hauled up the odd assortment of chairs so we could seat a crowd. It was amazing to watch as each family member entered the house and sniffed...and then slipped into the same nostalgia we had. More than one said they felt moved almost to tears by the palpable emotion of the moment.

The crazy last few seconds of getting everything on the table and every person in place happened just as it always had....up, down, laugh, scold, bicker, banter, and then..."Let’s pray," Dad commanded a bit impatiently. We all obediently bowed our heads while he prayed, and then someone giggled, and Dad said, "Amen," and everyone burst out laughing. Dad shook his head and muttered, "Cut that out and pass the potatoes."

What a great meal.

We were missing half the family and, of course, Mum. But everyone’s presence was keenly felt. It was the best Sunday dinner we’d shared as a family in a very long time, and everyone reveled in it.

That evening I went up to the hospital to put Mum to bed and say my goodbyes. Her fatigue was evident in how she had trouble forming sentences that made sense. It was difficult to engage her because most of her responses were disjointed and gave me nothing to bounce back on. I had to resort to my own mindless chatter. At one point I was talking about her grandbabies and spontaneously I asked, "Mum, remember the Danish rhyme you would say to the kids when they were little? You helped me learn it once. I’ll say it for you, and you can correct me if I’m wrong." She stared at me blankly. I began reciting the absolute only Danish I knew:

Ride ride ranke!
Hesten hedder Blanke
Follet hedder Abildgra
Det skal Ruth ride pa

She began whispering the words along with me, so I said, "Let’s do it again!" She smiled, and together we said the little rhyme with enthusiasm. She remembered all of it.

But she was tired and asked to go to bed. I was happy she was tired. She had had a lot of visitors that day and so had her roommate, which Mum thought were her visitors as well!. Back in her room she said to me, "This is a nice little hut. I feel at home here."

I left her that night knowing that she had been prayed for, visited, fed, and mentally stimulated. Although she wouldn’t remember any of it, she had had moment after moment of feeling loved and appreciated. Now she would sleep and enjoy her dreams of walking in the trees with her husband, gardening, and cooking yummy meals for her family and friends. She was young in her own mind and strong and slender, with the blond hair and light complexion of a Dane. She was rich with family and friends. And to me as I observed her all week, she was still alive in spirit and vibrant in her faith.

"They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing."
(Ps. 92:14)

We all had had a most wonderful week.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


I've often said, "If I had money and I didn't have a church, I'd travel the world."

Meeting the orphans in India

I love to travel.  I love the anticipation of the trip, buying new things for the trip, packing (I especially love the challenge of carry-on travel!), plane trips with a really good project to work on (though I can't say it's too much fun when I throw up, which has happened more times than I care to remember!), arriving to the sights and sounds and smells of my destination, laying my tired body down on a strange bed in a strange room and thinking, "I'm in _____! before falling asleep, waking up to sunshine and strange bird calls and thinking, "I'm in ____!" before jumping up to look out the window in daylight, my first meal, my first day out exploring, meeting interesting people, eating sometimes delicious and sometimes curious food, learning a little bit of the language, riding in funny modes of transportation, sweating, freezing or getting drenched and actually laughing about it, shopping for cool stuff, taking really good pictures, making really good Instagrams, learning new recipes and buying the exotic ingredients from the source, writing all about my experiences, and flying home full in every way.

This week I stumbled across a travel blog I had never heard of before.  I don't follow blogs and usually only go on them through a Google search if I'm looking up a recipe or searching a random word or phrase that links me to one.  But on my Facebook page I noticed a "Suggested Post" on Bosnia.  The picture was what immediately caught my attention, then the location, then the blog.  I usually ignore suggested posts and scroll past them, but I wanted to look at the pictures to see if I had traveled to any of the featured spots, so I clicked on it.  It was a short piece, but I was reminded of a place I had once visited, and I enjoyed reminiscing about it for a little while.  And that was that.

But two days later a link to the same blog came up on my page again, now because I had actually visited the site.  This time the featured location was Slovenia, a country just north of Bosnia and one I had never been to.  Again, it was the photographs that captured my attention...stunning blue water rushing through rugged mountains and deep forests, stunning blue lakes surrounded by quaint old-world houses, a castle on a hill, red tile roofs, cobbled streets, gorgeous buildings, flowers....I was smitten.

Then I did something I'd never done before...I explored the whole blog site.  I read the blogger's biography, looked at tons of her pictures, clicked on her links and lusted...yes, lusted...after her job.

Wanderlust.  It is a strong desire or impulse to wander or travel or explore the world.  Wikipedia says the term originates from the German words wandern (to hike) and lust (desire).

I have a very strong desire to explore the world.  I love to travel.  I've always loved it.  I still have a tiny spiral notebook that I wrote in every day of a trip I took across the United States when I was young.  I wrote about the sites I saw, the weather, family dynamics, truck stop food, the smell of diesel, cheap motel rooms that we squeezed six people into, and how I felt emotionally on both departing and arriving.  I was a travel blogger before the term even existed!!

But a trip across the U.S. wasn't enough for me.  I begged my mom to let me be an exchange student.  She said no, and my passionate pleading was snuffed out by the wet blanket of her fear.  But she did allow me to go on an eight-day short-term mission trip to Mexico when I was 16.  That did nothing to assuage my appetite.  In fact, it whetted it!  But there was no more travel for me for many years.

The seasons of life swirled by like the blossoms, leaves and snow that come and go with the wind.  I married, had four children, a job and a very settled routine.  I watched with bitter envy as my husband traveled---without me---to Mexico and India and London year after year.  The first trip he went on was to Mexico, and I was pregnant with our first baby.  I was devastated about being left at home, not because I was afraid of being alone but because I was upset that I couldn't go.  I remember flopping facedown on my bed to cry bitter tears of jealousy and realizing I couldn't even flop properly because I was pregnant (I attribute this childish outburst to pregnancy hormones and youth, because I've never done that again!).  Then there were the bigger trips husband away three weeks in India and I at home in the dead of winter with a baby, a toddler, a preschooler and a first-grader.  It snowed day after day after day while he was away, and I shoveled the sidewalks every night after putting the little ones to bed only to wake in the morning and find the walks covered again.  I was not comforted in any way by the red scarf and blue bag my husband brought me back from Harrod's in London nor the gold bracelets from India.  What good were souvenirs from a country you had never seen?

And then my husband went to Hawaii without me on his way to the Philippines.

That was the living end.  What husband goes to Hawaii without his wife?  He was travelling with two other men and the only words I could muster when he told me where he was going were, "Well, enjoy sleeping with So-and-So! as I turned my back and went back to cleaning up the kitchen.

But one day it happened.  I got a phone call (really!).  I was asked to join a team from Samaritan's Purse to take 50 teenagers to Costa Rica.  I would be the dance and drama coordinator.  My kids were older, all in school, able to dress themselves and make their own lunches.  My husband...well, he would just have to learn to be self-sufficient for two weeks!  In fact, it would be good for him!  So off I went, all expenses paid, and journaled the whole trip in another spiral binder.

That trip led to another in Belize and then an invitation to Ecuador.  And then, miracle of miracles, my husband and I started traveling together, and some of those trips included our kids too!  Mexico, Belize, Brazil, Singapore, India, Bosnia, Croatia and Cuba.  I transitioned from journaling to blogging and found such total bliss seeing the sights and then capturing my experiences by photos and through words.

When I returned from Cuba just a little over a month ago, I was a little disconcerted to discover that my trip didn't satisfy me but instead made me want to go somewhere else---and sooner rather than later.  It's the same feeling you get when you've had a week of rain followed by a glorious day of sun and then the dreary disappointment of the next day returning to rain again when you know very well you should be thankful for a day's reprieve.

It was in this state of mind that I stumbled across the travel blog and began reading myself into a vicarious world where I was the travel blogger, earning a living exploring the world and telling others all about it.  Could there be a better job?  I didn't think so.  I talked about it for four days straight, daydreamed about it, and put myself to sleep at night fantasizing about it.

And then this morning as I was on my way to church, having just finished telling yet two more people about my dream blog-job, I suddenly thought, "But what will she do with her life?"  "In whose life will she make a difference?"  "Will anyone be sorry to see her leave their country because her presence and work there changed the inhabitants?"  "How long can beautiful scenery, a good cup of coffee, a little art and a lot of history satisfy her spirit?"

I knew then my dream job was just that...a daydream, a fantasy, an idle muse.  I value this world for much more than its good looks and personality.  I value it for its soul.  If I can't touch people with the love of God, can't see them change, grow and embrace who they are in Christ, then what is the purpose of my passport?  I believe God placed the desire in my heart to explore the world so I could better love the world.  I am thankful for every country God has granted me access to.  I am grateful for the opportunity to see His amazing creation and admire the cultural diversity.  But most of all, I am humbled by the mission to carry His love to those who have never known it or those who want to know it better.  And I am overjoyed to think that I can love and be loved by those people too.

So my wanderlust I am now calling "wanderlove."  It is a strong desire or compulsion to wander or travel or explore the world for the purpose of sharing the love of God with others and cultivating a love for His people within my heart.

Now that is something to blog about!

The harbor in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Coffee, Trespassing, and Other Expensive Pursuits

I went on a very expensive date...

...with my son.

It was supposed to be an adventure, but it cost so much we both felt deflated rather than elated over our afternoon out.

Ever since I was young, I have loved exploring old abandoned houses.  I had a cousin who was adventurous and a little bit bad.  He is the one who first introduced me to trespassing on personal property and breaking into houses.  I guess that made me a little bit bad too.

I distinctly remember the first house I ever explored.  We were camping at the time.  We used to camp with a bunch of families three times a year...twice in the summer on the 4th of July and another weekend, and once in the fall when the leaves began to change.

This particular experience took place the first week of July; I know that because it was hot and we were wearing shorts, and my cousin had a bunch of firecrackers that he carried around in his pocket and lit off at random times during that the campground sandbox, inside a toy truck, and inside an old doll's head that he found on the old abandoned property we were exploring.  There is something gruesome and not very innocent about blowing up a doll.  I didn't like it one bit, but at the age of 10 I couldn't really explain why it bothered me, so I laughed and gave my cousin all the attention his naughty ego desired.

We started out playing in the sandbox at our campground, but that quickly bored us.  We went for a walk with no destination in mind.  We came to a fence that marked the boundary of the campground.  On the other side of the fence was a big open field.  My cousin didn't hesitate to climb the fence and the rest of us followed and started out across the field towards nothing in particular...we were just enjoying the feeling of freedom after the confines of the campground (which hadn't felt the least bit confining to me just a few minutes prior!).  As we swished our way through the tall grass, I felt a deep pain in the back of my ankle.  I turned to look and saw a huge hornet fly away.  Within minutes my ankle was stiff and numb.  I kept walking and didn't say a word.  My cousin didn't like babies.  As we pushed our way deeper through the waist-high weeds, we stirred up the grasshoppers, which began their crazy jumps every which-way.  I was never bothered by mice, snakes or spiders, but grasshoppers were another story.  They were the one and only insect that terrified me.  But I sucked in my breath and swallowed my cries so my cousin wouldn't think I was a baby, and I bravely plowed on like I didn't even notice the hideous green-brown bodies hitting me in the face and sticking to my shirt.

About halfway through the field we spied the house and barn.  We could see that many of the windows were broken, the barn door was hanging on its hinges, the porch was sagging, and the yard was empty and full of weeds. Suddenly we had a destination.  There were about 6 of us, maybe 7.  We found the back door unlocked and walked in boldly.  Everyone began running through the house, wanting to be the first to discover something that would make us say, "Hey guys, come look at THIS!"  The house was totally empty, except for graffiti on the walls and a staircase that had no railing, which looked pretty scary to me, but the older boys in our group found it to be the best part of the house.  Since there was nothing more to see inside the house, we wandered out to the barn.  That's where we found some old toys, including the poor naked doll.  My cousin pushed on her neck until the seam at the head and neck gave way enough for him to slip in a firecracker.  Then he lit it, pushed it all the way inside and let her blow.  The guys laughed like it was the coolest trick ever.

That's really all we did that day, but it put the exploration bug in us and we spent the rest of that week traipsing all over the countryside around our campground, finding other properties to trespass on.  Once we hit a jackpot when we climbed up to the attic of another abandoned house and came across boxes full of old letters and cards.  My cousin, not much of a reader, was quickly bored, but it was my turn to be fascinated.  I sat on the dusty wooden floorboards of that attic and contentedly read mail that didn't belong to me...stories about people I didn't know and places I'd never been long before I was even born.  Now this was my kind of trespassing!  But my cousin's continual pressure on me to stop being so boring won out, and I put everything back in the box and climbed down and out of the attic.

As I grew older I continued exploring vacant houses whenever I found them.  I moved far, far away from my cousin, but I had a group of friends who were willing trespassers.

One house in particular was especially fun, because an old man had died inside and when they took his body away, they left everything exactly as is.  Apparently he had no family because no one ever came to clean up the house or sell the property.  I remember opening up the oven door and finding a roasting pan inside.  I don't know what made me take the lid off the roaster, but I did. Inside was a hard, black roast that had petrified almost to stone.  The calendar on the wall was still open to a date about 7 years prior.  One of us got a great idea:  Let's rig the house and bring some of our other friends over and scare them to death!

So that's exactly what we did.  We tied fish line around the calendar and the stove pipe and made a little set-up.  Then later when we were together with our other friends, one of us nonchalantly said, "Hey, we should go explore that old house down the road."  The rest of us "in the know" chimed in, "Yeah, let's do it!"  The innocent ones went right along with us.  When we got to the house, we all pretended to discover something.  "Look!" I said.  "There's still a roast in the oven!"  Everyone squealed.  "Hey!" said someone else.  "The date on the calendar is seven years ago...that must have been the time the man died!"  At that moment, while everyone was staring at the calendar, the fish line was secretly yanked and the calendar fell off the wall, seemingly without anyone touching it.  A couple of the girls screamed.  Another yank of the fish line, invisible in the dim light, and the stove pipe fell over.  Now everyone was thoroughly spooked.  "Let's get out of here!" one of the girls cried.  We ran out of the house as though we were all scared, knowing very well the next trick.  There in the yard by the old, over-grown garden was a scarecrow, half hidden in the shadows of the tall trees bordering the property.  "The scarecrow moved!" one of us said in our best hysterical voice.  Everyone stopped, grabbing each other in fear and staring at the scarecrow as he moved one arm, then another, and suddenly took a step towards our group.  Screams of true terror erupted.  One of the girls picked up a rock and hurled it as hard as she could and hit the poor scarecrow in the forehead, drawing blood (and leaving a scar that remains to this day, 30 years later!).  Then they ran as hard and fast as they could for home, screaming and crying, with the rest of us trailing behind them, screaming and crying...with laughter.

So here I was all grown up, reminiscing with my son about all my childhood adventures as we drove through town towards our favorite coffee shop.  First, we would get coffee on this sunny Sunday afternoon, then we would drive out to a stretch of country road where I had found four abandoned houses and we would explore them together, because this was with my adventurous-and-a-little-bit-bad son!

We were almost to the coffee shop when a cop pulled out of a side road and followed the car behind us.  He didn't turn his lights on, just kept following him until the car pulled over.  "Poor guy," I said.  "He wasn't even going fast."  But the cop passed the car that had pulled over and was now behind us.  "He let the guy go," I said.  "That was nice."  But I nervously watched him in the rearview mirror.  "He's still following us. You weren't speeding, were you?" I asked my son.

"I don't know.  I don't think so," he replied.  "What's the speed limit?"

"I think it's 35.  You're okay," I reassured him.  "He would have put his lights on if he wanted us.  He must be driving back to town."

 We were just about to pull into the coffee shop's parking lot when he flashed his lights at us.  "Noooo," I wailed.  "There's no way we could be speeding for that much distance!"  But speeding we were.  Apparently it was only 25, even though we weren't even in the city for most of the drive.  I thought for sure he'd have mercy on a 20-year-old kid who was riding with his middle-aged mother on a Sunday afternoon.  Nope.  He handed out a $160 ticket and sent us on our way, fully chastised (and mad).  We both tried to keep a good attitude.  We bought our coffee and headed back out of town, comforting each other with, "It wasn't your fault."  "I'll pay half." and other nice things.

We came to the houses and picked the one that looked most interesting.  As soon as we pulled into the weedy driveway, a man across the street stepped out to his front porch and watched us.  Already it wasn't fun.  How were we going to be able to go inside with Mr. Neighborhood-Watch following our every move?  I pulled out my iPhone and began taking very obvious pictures of the sun over the fields and the old house, trying to look like an innocent passer-by who was simply admiring the scenery and wanting to capture it for Instagram.  We slowly wandered closer and closer to the house, but the neighbor was still out on his porch, joined now by his wife.  Hmmmph.  I told my son to go sit on the porch and I would take his picture.  Now he was quite dressed up, including wearing a very expensive pair of new boots.  I, on the other hand, was wearing sweats and running shoes.  I had told him he would probably want to change in case we had to climb a fence or wade through weeds, but he seemed to think it would be an easy adventure and shrugged off my suggestion.  Well, as he was walking towards the porch, he stepped on a blackberry vine, which caused it to twist up, wrap itself around his foot, and sink its brambles into the nice, soft leather of those gorgeous boots, tearing them when he took his next step.  "Arrrrggghhh!" my son yelled.  There in the rich, brown leather of the top of his boot was a deep gash.  Oh, this was not very much fun at all.  I tried to comfort him by telling him I had a leather repair kit at home.  He refused to be comforted and stomped angrily over to the porch and stood stiffly for me to take his picture, holding his coffee in one hand and a shovel in the other, looking absolutely stiff-jawed and expressionless.

We tried our hardest to have fun.  It just wasn't the way I imagined it at all.  We got back into his car and drove home.  I told him I'd pay half his ticket.  We made half-hearted jokes about our expensive date.

Later, after I posted on Instagram the picture of him standing in front of the house with his coffee in his hand and got many "Likes" on it, we were able to laugh a little more genuinely.  We agreed we had had an adventure after all.  And we had made a memory.  And we had lost a lot of money.

The moral of the story is:  Don't date your mother.

No, just kidding.  I don't really know the moral of the story.  But I do know that I was intrigued by those four abandoned houses, and I began making up stories in my head about who lived in each one and why they had abandoned their homes.

Maybe my next blog post will be one of those stories!

Sunday, March 2, 2014


I'm looking in the mirror at the skin of my sunburned nose peeling and flaking away, at my legs scabbing over where I was bitten by fleas (?) and at my rough and broken nails after my manicure dissolved in the heat and humidity of Cuba.  Was it really just a few days ago that I was splashing in the turquoise-blue water of the Gulf of Mexico?  On this chilly, damp night in Oregon it seems much longer than that.

Jeff and I went on a ministry adventure.  We traveled to Cuba, where few Americans visit.  I felt privileged to travel there and was greatly looking forward to our trip.  All I really knew about Cuba was that in the old days, Hollywood flocked there.  It was a tropical paradise that was sought out by movie stars, singers and writers...very artsy and probably not very moral.  I also knew it was famous for cigars, rum and the Cuban sandwich (which is a Florida creation, not Cuban...we asked).  And of course, there were the missiles and the Communists that frighten my mother to this day, 50 years after the crisis.

We arrived late at night and couldn't see a thing on our bus trip from the airport to the hotel.  I didn't even care that much about the scenery at that point, because I was in the miserable grip of the flu.  I had started the plane trip with what I thought was a migraine, but instead of progressing from pain to nausea and vomiting, this time I felt myself begin to shiver and ache while my skin became hot and dry with fever.  And then I started coughing in fits until I was exhausted.  Two days later I was standing at the hotel reception desk checking in, shivering in that lovely balmy air, telling Jeff how cold I was while I wrapped my sweater around my shoulders.  I crawled into my hotel bed underneath an extra blanket I found in the closet and closed my burning eyes and slept until 3 a.m., when I awoke with another coughing fit.  Ugghhh.  What a way to start my trip!

But the next morning I woke up sweaty and cool.  My fever had broken!  I got up and went straight to the door to our balcony, opened it, and slipped outside into the rosy light of dawn.  I could hear the water rolling onto the beach and could see it gleaming a lavender blue in the early morning light.  I quickly dressed and headed straight out to the beach with my camera.  We had a breakfast meeting at 8:30, so I didn't have much time, but I couldn't wait to step into that blue, blue water.

I thought I would go for a run, but I just didn't have the energy, so I walked the length of the beach, exploring the water holes and sandy spots and of course letting the gentle waves roll over my bare feet.  Okay, so it was colder than I expected, but still...I was wading in the Gulf of Mexico!  Out of time but satisfied, I hurried back to our room and got ready for the day.

Typical of many mission trips, we weren't quite sure what we were doing, where we were going, who was speaking or what the schedule was.  A big part of the disorganization is the great difficulty communicating with anyone in Cuba.  Their emails are all monitored and controlled by the government.  Sometimes their account will shut down for no reason and then suddenly come back a couple months later.  Jeff and I had no internet the whole time we were text messages, Facebook or email.  The Cubans were only slightly better off, but have to be very careful about the content of their communication, so everything is very vague until you actually arrive.  To prepare, we all just brought our notebooks full of messages so we could be ready at a moment's notice.  There were five of us---Pastors Phil and Judy Jaquith, who worked with the Cuban pastor to organize our trip, their daughter Harmony who translated into Spanish for us, and Jeff and me.  Our ride old VW van painted white with a bucket of paint and a hand-held paintbrush...and we climbed inside, got comfy on the dusty, cloth-covered seats, and headed off to a nearby city where the minister's conference was taking place.

The morning was heating up, but the church was built of concrete and had open sides so it was fairly cool inside.  The session was in progress when we arrived.  No problem...they just stopped everything and invited us up!  By the time Phil and Jeff had both spoken and we had ministered prophetically and prayed over the pastors, it was afternoon.  We walked down the street to the pastor's house where his wife had prepared us a meal of beans and rice, pork, chicken, fried plantain, and a cold vegetable plate with tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans.  When we were done eating, she brought out tiny cups and poured us strong and sweet Cuban coffee.  The only time I enjoy black coffee is when I am in countries like Brazil and Bosnia where they make it very strong and add too much sugar.  Cuban coffee is like that...if you get the expensive kind.  If you drink the common Cuban coffee, it is a 50/50  mixture of ground coffee beans and ground dried peas.  It's terrible!  That's what we drank in our hotel every day.  I was thankful every time we were served real coffee, strong and dark, by one of the pastors.

After lunch Jeff and I went down to the tiny church office and counted out piles and piles of money.  For three weeks before our trip, we had asked our congregation to consider giving a monetary gift for the pastors of Cuba.  Jeff had it on his heart to give $50 to each pastor in the fellowship (which was approximately 2-1/2 months salary)...and there were approximately 200 pastors.  That's $10,000...a lot for our little congregation!  But Jeff quoted our theme scripture of 2014:  "Above all you can ask or think."  Well, $11,500 came in!  That was enough to give every pastor $50, plus we gave some extra to the district pastors whose churches we ministered at to cover the gas and food they provided us.  They were surprised and blessed beyond measure.  One of the leaders told us it was a "historic offering."  What joy it was to bundle up all that cash into envelopes and distribute it to the pastors with a prayer of blessing!  (And what a relief it was to rid ourselves of that much cash!  We've never travelled with so much cash on our bodies before, and it was a rather uncomfortable feeling.  But God kept us and the money safe!)

After the conference, we were driven back to the hotel in time to catch a bit of the beach as the sun went down.  Then we enjoyed a late dinner together (although the food was awful!) and went to bed early as we were dealing with travel fatigue, first-day fatigue, and lingering sickness.

Next morning we were picked up in a different car...a big old car from the '50s that was nothing more than a metal chassis painted green.  There was no interior, just a metal frame and exposed bolts.  The motor had been rebuilt more times than could be counted.  The seats were old and weathered, with springs that sent us bouncing up and down on the bumpy roads.  We drove quite a way into the country and through many small towns before we reached our destination.  We first went inside the pastor's house where we were served fruit juice and crackers with mayonnaise, and then we walked across the yard to the church and ministered to the pastor's leaders.  By the time we were done speaking and praying, it was late afternoon and we were hungry.  The pastor took us back to his house and brought out the bowl of crackers again, poured us some soda and bottled water, and then offered us some packaged cookies.  We realized that was all they had.  We were grateful for how willingly they served us.  We got back into the green car to drive back home, and I pulled out some snacks from my purse...little bags of dried fruit and spiced nuts...and we all shared them.  The pastor and his wife loved them, and we enjoyed watching them try something new.

All the way through the small towns, the pastor would honk and wave at people he knew and they would enthusiastically yell out greetings and wave back.  Everyone seemed to love this good-natured, cheerful pastor.  Everywhere he went he had friends.

Despite the bumpy, uncomfortable car ride, Jeff had no problem falling asleep.  He was feeling headachey and feverish.  I guess I had passed on my germs!  But there was no time to be sick.  We got back to the hotel, freshened up, and then went for dinner...we were so hungry after nothing but crackers all day!  Then we were picked up by another pastor, this time in "The Black Beast," a monstrous black car that reminded me of the Batmobile.  The pastors had affectionately nicknamed their car, and they couldn't have chosen a better name!  I wondered what the hotel staff thought every time we caught a ride in yet another battered vehicle...all re-built and funny-looking.  The other guests who left the hotel were boarding tour buses or taxis.  We climbed into The Black Beast!

This pastor and his wife were also very outgoing, and the wife spoke fluent English so we had no trouble communicating.  We drove to their town where most of the carriages in Cuba were manufactured, they proudly told us.  Yes, carriages.  An old car like The Black Beast or the green machine costs about $15,000.  The average Cuban salary is $20 per month.  Do the math.  Many people drove horse-drawn carriages, and those poor horses trotted faithfully down the cobbled streets until they died.  There was no pasture for an old horse.  While we were learning these facts, suddenly the carriage next to our car came to an abrupt stop and leaned awkwardly towards the curb.  The horse had collapsed.  Men from the street ran to help the driver try to coax his horse back up, but as long as we watched, the horse remained crumpled on the road.  Poor horse!  Of course, that was my first thought.  Then I realized how great a loss this was for the owner.  He would have to save thousands of dollars to buy another horse.  He would be without transportation for a very long time.  He and his family would suffer from this huge set-back.  The pastor and his wife looked concerned for a moment, then continued to chatter on cheerfully.  This was life in Cuba.  I thought about the poor horse for a long time; they thought about the church service we were going to and the busy week ahead of them.

When we arrived, we were ushered into the pastor's house, which was attached to the church, as many pastors' houses are in Cuba.  This is New Testament-style church!  All the people of the congregation come and go right through the house, and church life and home life are one.  In North America, pastors hold the church at arm's length...our houses a safe distance from people who might interrupt our family time or personal space.  As I watched the lively interaction between the people and the Cuban pastors, I wondered what it would be like to live a life that was so entwined with the activity of the church.  Something told me we would have a more vibrant church if we moved into the house on our church property.  Something told me people would volunteer more and spend more time at the church and not just show up for services.  I was intrigued, and Jeff and I even had a "What if" conversation...What if we moved into the house on the church property?  What would happen?  Would we like it?  Would the church grow?  Would our people hang out there and get more involved?  What would our kids think?  It is an interesting concept, and I am honestly curious enough to wish we could try it out for a year and see what would happen!

The church service began, and we enjoyed another group of passionate worshipers.  Everyone is so expressive here!  They hit the ground running...ready to worship, fully engaged, joyful faces, and completely absorbed in His presence.  It is easy to minister to them...their receptivity draws out the anointing.  There is no working it up here.

After church, we were served lots of yummy treats.  There was flan, a common Latin American dessert that is eggy, sweet and rich, a cake with classic 7-minute icing, these wonderful little donut crisps sprinkled with sugar, and fresh pineapple.  After 40 days on a Daniel Fast without any sugar or white flour, I was a little overwhelmed at the sugar-fest...everything tasted so sweet!  But those little donut crisps were pretty awesome!  After eating, it was back into The Black Beast for the ride home.

The next morning we went for the longest drive of all, but we were pampered by getting to ride in a beautiful minivan with air conditioning!  We drove out to the countryside with the pastor who was the overseer of all the churches in the fellowship.  He wanted to show us the farm that he had grown up on and the land that he now wants to use for a youth camp.  It was wonderful to see the country in its raw form.  We passed community gardens and fields with palm trees and banana trees.  Fences were made from living trees, so each fence post bloomed at its top!  When we arrived at the farm house, a little boy shyly came out to greet us...or probably just to check out what was happening, as they said very few people ever drive out that far.  We walked among the chickens who roamed freely through the house and yard, and we listened to the pastor's stories of his his family became Christians, how he walked 7 miles to church, how they withstood the Communists who tried to pressure them to give up their land, and how he watched the soldiers hold a gun to his grandmother's head on more than one occasion as they interrogated and harassed her for going to church.  It was his grandmother's faith and determination to attend church no matter the threat that compelled him to make the same commitment to Christ.  It was a very poor and simple life in the country and fraught with oppression and even danger, but he loved the farm his family had fought for, and he wanted to share it with the youth, giving them a place to come to get away, play, and worship freely.  We prayed over the land and the pastor, that God would grant him government favor as he pursued the necessary permits to use his land as a youth camp.  And that was it...we got back into the van and drove all the way back to the pastor's home in the city where we met up with his family and shared lunch at a fabulous restaurant.  This was the first time we experienced variety in the Cuban menu.  Rice and beans is most definitely a staple, but there wasn't much to eat beyond that.  At this restaurant, we had beautifully prepared salad, plantain chips fried thin and crisp, stuffed plantain that tasted like pizza bites, chicken smothered in cheese, gorgeous drinks and even a Cuban version of bruschetta.  We ate out on the patio, which was surrounded by tropical greenery and chatty parrots.  After being well fed we parted ways, and Jeff and I joined the same pastor and wife we had ministered with the night before and drove out to a small rural town to minister at another church.

When we arrived at the pastor's house, we saw that it was in a dark, uninviting apartment building.  It looked totally creepy and decrepit.  In the States that building would have been condemned or at best a drug house, and no normal person would have stepped foot into that dark stairwell.  But here, everyone cheerfully entered and worked their way up the stairs in total darkness until we arrived on the concrete landing where a door stood open and light spilled out in a surprisingly welcome way.  We were greeted with kisses and given the best seats in the little living room, which looked quite normal with simple furnishings, laughing children and visiting adults.  The door to the balcony was open, and the men were gathered there in the warm night breeze while the women sat in rocking chairs and chatted comfortably.  When dinner was ready, we squeezed around a tiny kitchen table...some of us sitting on boxes, some of us on broken chairs (mine!  I discovered it when I leaned too far to the right and my chair tipped!).  We had another meal of beans and rice, chicken, tomatoes and cucumbers.  The pastor's wife from the night before was our translator, and she was so quick and good at what she did that it honestly didn't even feel like we were being translated.  The jokes were flying back and forth with a lot of bantering and laughter, and we had a wonderful time of fellowship with these three new pastors and their wives.  It was actually hard to pull ourselves away from that pleasant place, but we felt our way back down the dark stairs and out onto the dark dirt road and walked to the church where the people were already packed in tight, waiting expectantly.  We had another great service and then climbed into The Black Beast and headed home.

The next morning I woke up with bites all over my legs.  This happens to me on pretty much every mission trip I've ever taken...Costa Rica, Belize, India and now Cuba.  Jeff never gets them; I always get them!  Also, my feet, ankles and lower legs were all puffy.  This happened last year in India too.  It's probably a combination of too much salt in the food (I never salt my food), heat, humidity, and lots of sitting.  So my legs were not very attractive, to say the least!  This day we were driving to Havana, so we loaded up the nice air-conditioned van and headed to the big city.  I put my feet up, closed my eyes, and dozed a bit, which was nice.  Once we had checked in to our hotel and freshened up, we were picked up and taken to another pastor's house where we had another delicious dinner of beans and rice, pork, yucca root (very similar to potato), and tomatoes and cucumbers, followed by Cuban coffee.  Then we were off to a small church in Havana, which took place right in the living room of one of the congregation member's home.  The place was packed out right onto the porch, just like all the other churches.  And like all the other churches, this group of believers was expressive and engaged in worship.  The worship team played interesting gourd instruments that lent a fun Caribbean feel to the worship service.  We spoke and prayed and prophesied, and then were taken into the kitchen and fed cake and fruit before returning to our new hotel.

Havana is a beautiful city.  As we drove to church the next morning, I couldn't stop exclaiming over the gorgeous houses and buildings.  Although many were in a state of disrepair, the intricate architecture was still evident and the size and structure of the buildings was amazing.  The church we ministered at that Sunday morning was the largest church in Cuba.  It was another great church...packed out and vibrant with worship.  Here, all the children gathered into a straight line and placed their hands on the shoulders of the child ahead of them and marched through the church while the adults sang a fun and catchy song, serenading them out the door and to their Sunday school class.  There were two services back-to-back, so it was a busy morning.  By the end of the second service, the building was heating up.  Because the morning was longer than most of the other services we had attended up to this point, I found I needed a bathroom.  Every other day I was able to last until I had access to a decent bathroom, but this day I had to do what the locals do and squeeze into a tiny bathroom with only a toilet seat or lid and no toilet paper.  There was a sink, but only one tap that dripped water out in a weak, thin stream.  When it was time to flush, I pulled the makeshift string up from the tank, and it snapped in two in my hand!  So guess who had to reach her hand into the tank and manually flush the toilet?  Oh, yes...I make a good missionary!  But no worries, because I'm always quite prepared.  Inside my trusty travel bag I keep toilet paper and antibacterial gel!  I tell these stories because people always wonder!

After the service we went back to the pastor's house for lunch....yes, beans and rice, pork, plantains and a different root vegetable that was fried and crisp on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside.  Although the meals were identical from day to day, this particular meal was very tasty.  The pork was fall-apart tender and everything was seasoned and cooked very well.  The woman who cooked for us apparently used to be a professional cook.  She was an old widow woman who lived with the pastor's family and had taken care of the children like a grandmother since the kids were small.  She didn't speak a word of English, but she happily served us dinner and then brought us Cuban coffee to end our meal on a sweet note.

We had a young man drive us back to our hotel after lunch, but first he drove us to Old Havana for a quick tour of the main square and the waterfront.  It was beautiful!  He promised us a full tour the next day, and took us back to our hotel to rest and refresh before heading out to yet one more church that night.

Our final evening of ministry took place in a tiny little church that was nothing more than a porch with a metal roof overhead.  They had a very old keyboard and an archaic sound system and one saxophone.  But they could sure worship!  We were so blessed by the joy in every single one of the churches we had ministered at.  The people had nothing, yet they had everything!  Their whole lives were dedicated to the House of the Lord...the place of joy, fellowship, and relationship.  If only we could re-train ourselves to be so single-minded about the things of God!

Our ministry was done.  We climbed into bed feeling finished and fulfilled.  We slept deeper, released from responsibility.  When I woke in the morning, I jumped into my bathing suit and left Jeff to sleep in while I had a swim in the pretty pool.  Ahhh, the sweet sun shining so early, the blue water, perfectly still.  I swam quietly, just enjoying the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the water on my skin until it was time for breakfast.  After eating, we met up with the same man who had driven us the day before.  He had brought his wife along, who spoke very good English, and we had a double date!  For them, it was so much fun to take time off and have a little leisure.  For us, we had the privilege of personal tour guides taking us through Old Havana.  We could stop when and where we wanted and ask any question.  We had a great time together as a foursome, truly enjoying each other's company.  We loved the intrigue of Old Havana...a merry mix of brightly colored buildings, cobbled streets, horse-drawn carriages, luscious flowers, stately historic cathedrals and theaters adorned with intricate carvings, balustrades and pillars, and vintage cars decked in glossy paint and shiny chrome trim.  There was an open market in an old warehouse filled with artisan goods.  There were quaint cafes with sidewalk tables.  There were street performers and living statues.  There was even Central Park, a big square of old trees and cooling green vines.  We walked for a good three hours, stopping at a food cart for coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell and taking pictures of everything!  Finally feeling hungry and needing a bit of shade, we ate lunch at a stunningly beautiful restaurant overlooking the cathedral and main square.  We dined on a delicious lunch of seafood while we talked about life in Cuba.  Our tour guides greatly enjoyed this special meal.  They had told us that their normal diet was beans and rice three times a day with a bit of chicken or pork and fresh vegetables whenever they could get them.  They told us that the government issued ration books for food, but it was the same for everyone no matter the size of the family.  They told us they had been trying to get permission to install a phone in their home for all 11 years of their marriage.  They told us that a dress cost about $20 and shoes about $35, but their salary was only $20 per month.  They shared about their childhood growing up under communism and how it had been slowly getting better the last few years.  They shared how they came to Christ and how their lives had become so much richer and more meaningful.  They shared their deep desire to have a baby.  We prayed together as our day came to an end.  Then they left us at the hotel to gather our luggage and meet our final ride back to our original hotel where the airport was.  We said goodbye to Phil, Judy and Harmony and joined the first pastor we had met on our first day in Cuba.  We drove back to Varadero as the sun set, stopping at a viewpoint on the way back overlooking a huge canyon with a river far, far below that flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.  The guard rail was quite low, which made us quite hesitant to lean too far to look down, down, down, but the luscious colors of the sunset and the warm breeze were wonderful to experience.  By the time we arrived at the hotel it was dark.  We ate our "last supper" and crawled into our funny separate beds for the last time.

I awoke the next morning not to the sun and the sound of the sea but to a loud banging and men's voices yelling in Spanish.  It sounded like someone was right on our balcony, but a peek outside revealed that one floor below us was a flat rooftop that held all the ducting, and a group of men were busily working on it.  Well, that would explain why we were freezing cold that night but weren't able to turn the air conditioning down!  Jeff was still sound asleep, so I ate breakfast alone and then headed down to the beach.  I was excited to have a novel to read and a lawnchair to lounge on by the sea.  I have never done that before, and it sounded soooo relaxing and luxurious.  Jeff joined me a couple hours later, and we walked through the warm white sand to the grass hut that served pina coladas and ordered a virgin one.  Then we cooled off in the water, wading way out into the deep blue, rising and falling with the rhythm of the waves.  Ahhhh, this was the life!  Except that we hadn't really been in the sun very much that week, and we knew we'd better not overdo it.  So we took refuge by eating lunch in a little restaurant, sitting at a table by big windows open to the sea.  Then we showered and dressed in our North American travel clothes, checked out of our hotel and went for a long walk, down to the little mall and then beyond, exploring the other resorts in the area and squeezing out every last drop of the beautiful evening.  We ate our last dinner in Cuba and then boarded the shuttle bus to the airport.  We cleared customs easily and then sat for 3 hours in the plain little airport until our plane left.

We arrived in Toronto at 2:30 a.m. and then waited an hour for our hotel shuttle bus in the freezing cold -15 weather.  We were exhausted by the time we fell into bed at 4 a.m.  We were also sunburned.  My shoulders stung when they hit the rough sheets.  How weird it was to be sunburned in such a cold, snowy setting.  Despite the discomfort, we promptly fell asleep...until the alarm went off a short three hours later and we dragged our bodies out of bed and back onto the shuttle bus.  The best part of the Toronto airport?  Real coffee!  We boarded the plane to Chicago, and then after an 1-1/2 delay, headed home to Portland.

It's always a little sad to leave someplace beautiful and exciting, but it's also incredibly lovely to come home.  The sun was peeking through the clouds when we arrived, and I was excited to see that the daffodils were in bloom.  My kitty was happy to see me...and so were my kids, even though they are quite independent and self-sufficient now.  We spent the evening reading the mail, unpacking, doing piles and piles of laundry, checking 10 days' worth of email and Facebook messages, and finally making a big bowl of popcorn and watching Downton Abbey...and then, the best part of coming home...slipping between the cool, clean sheets of my own bed with my own pillow and falling asleep to the sound of gentle rain and the wind in the trees.

For pictures, check out my Facebook page!